Reading This Week – Watercolours – Adrienne Ferreira

A gifted child, a quirky family, an inexperienced teacher, a mysterious death all jumbled together in a small, country town that’s the essence of Watercolours. This is the debut novel for Adrienne Ferreira and in it she creates an engaging story with a  group of likeable characters.

Watercolours is a gentle book which meanders through the everyday lives of it’s characters highlighting family and love along the way.

The highlight of the book for me is the strong sense of place created throughout the narrative with the river an additional character in the story. “One thing I’ve noticed is that up in the hills where I live, the Lewis is narrow and fast. It’s noisy where it rushes over the rocks, then it creeps along silently in pools like it’s sneaking up on someone. Down in town, where the land is flat, the river turns fat and slow and green. It ripples its long muscles as it winds its way around Morus in a big loop, as if it wants to squeeze the place and swallow it whole.”

The nuances of a rural river town are captured beautifully in this work and anyone who has ever spent time in a small community will recognise  the characters. The go-getting business man who leads the local Rotary Club, the busybody who interferes in the lives of others, the pragmatic neighbour who provides a casserole and friendly advice to the newcomer to town, the hippies up in the hills, for a country girl reading the book is like stepping back into my childhood.

While eleven-year-old Novi wants to fit in at school and in the community, his artistic talent and his eccentric family always leave him a little on the outer. New teacher Dom identifies Novi’s ability and goes about trying to find a way to support the child and his art.

Novi believes his Grandfather was murdered, although the rest of the town see the death as a drowning tragedy during the last big flood. When Novi’s drawings begin to gain a wider audience the mystery unravels.

Ferreira splits the narrative into a number of voices which gives different perspectives on the unfolding events and the past secrets. Love in various forms and chasing dreams are two of the themes which resonant throughout the book and add a poignant undertone to the story.

An enjoyable read.

Reading this Week – The Testimony – Halina Wagowska

As time passes The Holocaust of World War II moves further into the pages of history. The tragedies and atrocities are at risk of becoming facts, figures and statistics on a page taught to disinterested students who would rather be at the beach than in a stuffy classroom.

Eighty-one-year-old human rights activist Halina Wagowska counters this with her autobiography, The Testimony.

At ten years of age Halina lives the blissful innocence of a happy childhood with loving parents, she reflects on how those early years develop the resilience that will get her through the next five years enduring unimaginable horrors.

The Testimony is structured into snapshots where Halina deflects attention from herself by devoting each chapter to individuals who crossed her path. Stasia, the Gentile nanny so devoted she joins the family in the ghetto. Frieda, the intelligent scholar who urges survival will mean testifying to what they experienced for the rest of their lives. Sasha, the Russian soldier, who rescues the nearly-dead Halina and nurses her back to health providing her with the first kindness she had experienced for a long time.

There is a sense Halina has kept some of the horror she experienced to herself, although what she shares will cling to your thoughts for days afterwards. The image of a child responsible for carting bodies from the gas chambers to furnaces then lugging the buckets of ash and bone to the nearby swamp is haunting.

However, her youth also provides her with adaptability, a quickly growing sense of rat-cunning, and an ability to focus on the immediate. When the adults around her become overwhelmed by the big picture view of the situation Halina struggles to keep them alive.

Halina continues her story after the war ends and poignantly documents how peace did not necessarily bring joy. Alone and uneducated the teenager must create a new life for herself.

Arriving as an immigrant in Australia she works as a cleaner, studies and ultimately enjoys a career in pathology. The experiences of her formative years, and the influences of those she loved and lost, shape her commitment to human rights, working tirelessly for Aboriginal education, homeless students and bioethics.

The Testimony provides us with a valuable of record of the long-term impact of the Holocaust and a moving personal retrospective paying tribute to those who aren’t here to tell their stories.

Review originally written for the Hardie Grant Book Club.

Reading This Week – The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

In Australia there is a long-running debate on what to do about asylum seekers. In particular, the people who pay money to people smugglers to take to the open sea in a bid to seek refuge in Australia. It’s a political hot-potato, with the issue whipped into a frenzy by a variety of shock-jocks and media commentators. It’s a complex and emotive situation on both sides of the argument.

This book removes the political spin, the inflammatory rhetoric and personalises the issue in a way that nobody with a heart could ignore.

Comedian Anh Do captures the story of his life in this funny, uplifting and deeply moving memoir. In doing so he makes a wonderful tribute to his parents and all the other refugees who risked so much to give their children a better life in Australia.

As a two-year-old Anh and his family came close to dying on the perilous ocean voyage to escape Vietnam. They ward off pirates, dehydration, starvation and storms finally making it to Malysia then Australia.

The following years are no picnic. The courageous father who donned a uniform and boldly walked into a communist re-education camp to get his brother-in-laws out, then captained a tiny boat across the wild seas to transport 39 people to their new life, struggles with the demons of surviving war and tragedy and leaves the family when Anh is thirteen.

The bloody legend of a mother, sews night and day to feed, house, and educate three kids in private school.

The three children work hard, do well and give back to their country.

Anh’s humour has made him a very successful comedian it weaves itself into every page of the book, you laugh out loud often. Then he twists your heart when he shares the  vulnerability of an outsider trying to fit in when there is no money, life keeps dealing blow after blow and you are not sure how it is all going to work out.

Anh was advised not to put the word refugee in the title of the book – “because Aussie’s won’t buy it” – Anh’s response “I have faith in Aussies”. I’m glad we didn’t let him down, the book has sold 150,000 copies and won a slew of awards.

Russell Crowe has brought the film rights and there has been a children’s picture book version released.

I hope The Happiest Refugee makes it to school reading lists because every teenager in Australia should read this book to gain an insight into what it is to be a refugee.

Australian Women Writers Challenge

In honour of 2012 being designated the national year of reading I’m signing up for a new challenge. This one is to read and review books by Australian Women Writers.  I figure if I can’t be an Australian Women Writer I can at least support the ones who have toiled and struggled to finally get into print. It’s called the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  There’s a variety of different levels you can sign up for, but having learnt from my write a novel in 30 days bite-off-more-than-you-can-chew challenge I’ve gone for the easiest option possible -read 3 books, review at least 2 in a variety of genres – baby steps to start but hopefully throughout the year I will read more.

I’ve decided these will be the first three books I tackle.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on these books with you.